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Israeli-Palestinian Diplomatic Warfare

U.S. Envoys George Mitchell & Dennis Ross Return To Middle East Trying To Break Israeli-Palestinian Logjam

IsraCast Assessment: 1.) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Attempting To Internationalize Conflict & Forego Direct Talks With Israel

2.) Israel's Leaders Playing Into Palestinian Hands By Words & Actions

3.) Need For Israeli Diplomatic Offensive Offering New Proposals

President Mahmoud Abbas

Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas show no signs of budging. U.S. envoys George Mitchell and Dennis Ross have returned to the Middle East in a new attempt to break the deadlock but Netanyahu rejects a new settlement moratorium while Abbas will not negotiate unless there is a new freeze. IsraCast analyst David Essing assesses the situation which has turned into a diplomatic war that Israel does not appear to be winning.

It's back to square one, after the Obama administration failed to clobber and then coddle Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu into another settlement freeze in Judea & Samaria (West Bank). Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is adamant, he will not negotiate unless Netanyahu agrees to another settlement moratorium. The Israeli leader retorts that he already made a unilateral concession to the Palestinians with his 10 month freeze that expired on September 26th. However, Abbas squandered this moratorium by doing nothing and then had the temerity to dictate a precondition for negotiations - another settlement freeze. First Obama exerted considerable pressure on Netanyahu and when that didn't do the trick he was reportedly ready to offer Israel a package of inducements that included another twenty- F-35 stealth fighter jets. But neither the stick or the carrots succeeded because the Israeli leader was committed to his supporters, in and out of government, to renew building in settlements. The outcome - the indefatigable U.S. envoy George Mitchell has revived his Middle East shuttle between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Arab capitals in another attempt to jump-start the moribund negotiations. His mission has been reinforced by the arrival of old Middle East hand Dennis Ross who has also been sent back out to his old not so happy 'hunting ground'.

For his part, Netanyahu has resembled actor Eli Wallach in the western 'The Good, the Bad & The Ugly' and his memorable one liner: ' If you're going to shoot, shoot!' In his case, Netanyahu tells Abbas: 'If you're going to negotiate, negotiate!' Abbas argues that renewed Israeli building proves Israel's bad faith. The fact of the matter is that Israeli settlements have never been an obstacle to Israeli withdrawals. The iconic Likud PM Menachem Begin withdrew not only from settlements, an oil field and a major air base in Sinai in order to make peace with Egypt in 1979. That was for real peace that has endured to this very day. Then there was Arik Sharon, another Likud PM, who unilaterally evacuated all the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2004. But that total withdrawal ended very badly with Hamas then exploiting the territory to launch thousands of rockets into Israel (also to this very day). Moreover, since the start of the Oslo process over seventeen years ago, the Palestinians have never set the prior condition of a settlement freeze (except for the Hamas Palestinians who have never deviated from their pledge to wipe Israel off the map).

Mahmoud Abbas, Benyamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama(Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Ironically, it was Barack Obama's insistence on the settlement freeze that threw a wrench into the works. Abbas has said that after Obama took such a resolute stand, he could do no less. But Obama failed to realize that Netanyahu had put all his credibility on the line by promising to rebuild after the ten month freeze and could not bow to American pressure or inducements to do so. And just what is the objective of the very negotiations now boycotted by President Abbas? No less than the terms of an Israeli withdrawal from most of the the West Bank and the establishment of the long awaited Palestinian state. What possible reason could Abbas have for refusing to sit down and settle the core issues of borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem and the finality of claims? One does not need to be a Sherlock Holmes in international relations to draw the conclusion, 'however improbable it seems', that Abbas is simply not interested in negotiating for a Palestinian state. The Palestinian leader apparently prefers to seek an imposed agreement foisted on Israel and the Palestinians by the UN. Its terms might be better, from a Palestinian point of view, and it would deflect the wrath of Hamastan in Gaza, whose Prime Minister Ismail Haniya has just reiterated: "The Palestinians will never, never, never recognize Israel!" Not that Abbas is willing to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. In an interview in Arabic, Abbas explained it was important not to recognize Israel as a Jewish state because this would negate the Palestinian refugees 'right of return' to their former homes in Israel.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is bearing the brunt of international criticism. A group of twenty-six former European Union senior officials have called on the EU to impose sanctions on Israel. In a stinging column in the New York Times, pundit Thomas Friedman wrote that both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships were hallucinating and: "It is long past time that we stop being their crack dealers...it is manifestly in their own interests to negotiate a two-state solution". However, the underlying reality is far more complex than reflected in Friedman's catchy metaphors. There is a deep crisis of credibility existing between the two sides. The U.S.approach has focused on a Israeli map for future borders with the Palestinian state on the West Bank. The reasoning was that once there were agreed borders, both Israelis and Palestinians could build away inside their own territory. However, Netanyahu perceives borders as a function of security arrangements - in his view only security can bring lasting peace to Israel and not the other way around as some long distance advisers in the U.S. or Europe like to preach to Israel. In addition, Israeli sources talk of the need for simultaneous discussion on the whole range of core issues as described above.

So what will be a sensible and sober tack for Israel to take now - one not hallucinating on crack, but on the other hand is not driven by a dose of political Valium that ignores the considerable threats facing Israel if a peace agreement fails in the future? For example, what if Hamas overthrows President Abbas on the West Bank as well and again throws Abbas officials off the roofs of high - rise buildings as they did in Gaza? Should Israel not be as concerned about its security as those other democratic states that have been fighting their wars for years in in distant lands? The fact is that most Israelis, on the basis of past experience, do not believe that Abbas, even if he wants to, is strong enough to hammer out a deal with Israel and make it stick.

To negotiate with Israel, Abbas is dependent on the support of the Arab League and its follow-up committee which has now decided against fresh peace talks, if Israel does not halt the settlement building. Unless there is a break in the current logjam, Abbas is threatening to unilaterally declare Palestinian independence at the UN. Several South American states, including Brazil and Argentina, have already announced recognition of a Palestinian state and the move at the UN would probably be met with a landslide of support by other nations. In response, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed unanimously a resolution calling on the Obama administration: 'To deny recognition to any unilaterally declared Palestinian state and veto any resolution by the U.N. Security Council to establish or recognize a Palestinian state outside of an agreement negotiated by the two parties'. The Congressional resolution is only declaratory as would be the Palestinian declaration of independence at the U.N. but the Palestinians will have won a major diplomatic victory in the international arena.

In Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman poured cold water over the U.S. effort to seek an agreement within a year. In his view it would only create unrealistic expectations that would lead to a further deterioration of the situation. He told his Knesset faction: "The sole solution is a long-term interim agreement. All the previous attempts by Olmert at Annapolis and Barak at Camp David II only triggered a further worsening of the situation". After meeting Mitchell in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said: 'We have discussed practical ways to advance peace and achieve a framework agreement. This is Israel's goal and I hope the Palestinians will respond to it". However Abbas is now armed with the renewed support of the Arab League so if Israel refrains from some gesture, the peace process will likely remain stymied with the international tide turning against the Jewish state. Netanyahu has apparently weathered the storm with the U.S., but for how long? Israel's leader should heed the words from the past by Arik Sharon, his Likud predecessor. In his day, Sharon warned the Palestinians were interested in 'internationalizing the conflict' and creating a situation where the Arab and Muslim pressure could be galvanized against the Jewish state. Sharon realized he had to prevent the creation of a diplomatic vacuum which others would fill with their ideas for resolving the conflict.

Avigdor Lieberman (Photo: Amit Shabi)

On this score, Likud cabinet minister Silvan Shalom has now stated unequivocally that the Palestinians are not really interested in negotiating the core issues and are exploiting the settlement dispute as a pretext. If this is so, are Israeli official actually playing into Palestinian hands by not presenting their own convincing peace proposals? Instead Israel is waging a war of counter-rhetoric, one it is losing because it is perceived as the stronger party which should be more forthcoming. Surely the goal of Israeli diplomacy should be to prevent the Palestinians from achieving their aim of casting Israel in the role of the side rejecting peace. Prime Minister's Netanyahu's statements without substance, coupled with Foreign Minister Lieberman's outright rejection of a real peace agreement in the foreseeable future, are a prescription for a diplomatic debacle. This does not mean Israel's leaders should hallucinate about 'peace in our time' with the Palestinians, any more than American leaders should about making peace with the Taliban or al Qaeda - but it does mean refraining from steps that are perceived as acting in bad faith and hampering the already fragile peace process. Israel's leaders should understand the international community is not interested in the theoretical 'rights and wrongs' of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but seeks a practical solution that gives the Palestinians a viable state and reasonable security to Israel.

David Essing

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